Updated: May 28, 2019
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How to Sanpai: A Quick Guide To Visiting a Japanese Shinto Shrine

Shinto shrines are some of the coolest places to visit when in Japan. However, figuring out what one should and shouldn't do when visiting these sacred places can be confusing. Here is a quick guide on how to respectfully visit a Japanese shrine.

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Sanpai Guide

Sanpai (参拝) is the Japanese word meaning 'visit a shrine or temple.' In this quick guide, I'll go through the process of visiting a jinja (Shinto shrine). Shrines are easily identified by their torii (two-tiered gates) that are placed in and around every shrine, and are distinct from Buddhist temples, which are also found around Japan (but not covered in this article).

Entering the jinja

Meiji Jingu, Shibuya, Tokyo
When you enter a Shinto shrine, you should give a light bow before walking through the torii (Shinto gate, like the one shown above). It is said that the gods are watching as you walk though the shrine, so walk carefully and politely.

Washing your hands

When you enter any large shrine, there will be place to wash your hands inside the main gate (such as that shown in the picture above). People visiting the shrine should use this water to clean their hands and mouth, and symbolically purify their hearts. The proper way to wash is as follows:

1. Hold the dipper in your right hand and fill it with water (from the spout, not the basin)
2. Pour water to rinse your left hand
3. Take the dipper in your left hand, and pour water to rinse your right hand
4. Switch the dipper back to your right hand, and pour water into your cupped left hand
5. Rinse your mouth with the water from your left hand (never drink directly from the dipper!), and then spit this water into the trough next to the basin.
6. Return the dipper

Praying at the sanctuary

When praying at the sanctuary of a shrine, just remember: two, two, one (two bows, two claps, one bow) Here are the steps:

1. If there's an offering box, it's a good idea to put a coin in. You can then ring the bell by pulling on the rope (if there is one).

2. Bow twice, clap your hands twice, and then stand with your hands together in prayer.

3. Bow one more time before walking away.

Things to keep in mind

A small shrine in Saga prefecture
-At a shrine, you shouldn't make wishes or ask for favors from the Shinto god that is enshrined there. Instead, simply express your gratitude towards the god. If you want, you could even introduce yourself and tell the god where you live (although if you don't live in Japan, you're probably outside of the god's jurisdiction!)

-Many Japanese people think that it is good luck to use a 5 yen coin as an offering. This is because in Japanese, 五円 (five yen) is pronounced 'go en,' which is the same pronunciation as the word ご縁 (fate/destiny). Because of this, many people will save their 5 yen coins for going to shrines. However, the shrine would, of course, prefer a larger donation.

-Taking pictures in most shrines is okay, unless otherwise posted. Keep an eye out for no photography signs, but otherwise feel free to snap away.


Seeing what number she got
Omikuji (おみくじ) are fortunes that visitors to a shrine can get for a donation (usually ¥100). Various predictions about your luck, including wealth, health, romance, etc. are written, along with an overall rating of your fortune. This rating is written somewhere towards the top of the fortune, and falls on a scale from good to bad.

The traditional way to get your fortune is to draw a stick out of the large metal or wood cylinder (like that shown in the picture above), and then find the numbered drawer that corresponds to the number written on the stick. You then open the drawer and take out your fortune. There are sometimes other ways to get your omikuji, however, including just reaching into a box and pulling one out.
Daikichi, the best possible result
Most large shrines nowadays will have a box of English omikuji, but in case Japanese is all that's available (or you'd just rather have a Japanese fortune), here is what to look out for:

吉 -This kanji is pronounced 'kichi' and means 'good fortune.'
凶 -This kanji is pronounced 'kyou,' and means 'bad fortune'

These two kanji will appear by themselves, or paired with other kanji which modify them such as 大 (dai), meaning 'big' or 小 (shou), meaning small.

Hence, 大吉 (daikichi) is the best fortune that you can get, whereas 大凶 (daikyou) is the worst.
Kyou, an unlucky result
There's no set-in-stone rules regarding omikuji, but most Japanese people will do the following after getting their fortune:

If the result is good (has the kanji 吉), put the fortune in your wallet, or take it home.
If the result is bad (has the kanji 凶), tie the fortune somewhere in the shrine. You'll see strings of next to the omikuji boxes for this purpose (don't tie the bad fortune to a tree branch).
Tying a bad omikuji

Exiting the shrine

Ise Jingu
When you exit a shrine, walk through the torii gate, and then turn back to face the sanctuary and give another light bow. Many people neglect this step, but it is a respectful way to exit the shrine.
I live in west Tokyo and spend most of my time thinking about food or going bouldering.

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